The women of the Oracle Set Book Club have spent the past 45 years cementing friendships through their love of reading.
The pages of each month’s carefully selected book hold much more than just plot, characters and setting. These 18 women — all in their 60s — have grown with each other through the years, from sharing their love of Octavia Butler’s science fiction to celebrating wedding anniversaries and attending loved one’s funerals. Books have been the vehicle for forming lifelong bonds.
“The book club is a warm group of ladies that I enjoy being with. We all get into these lively, thought-provoking discussions afterwards that are just wonderful,” said Ivy Holsey, the club’s president. “It’s like a sisterhood because we’ve been together for such a long time.”
At its annual luncheon Saturday, Oracle Set hosted 500 people in celebrating its nearly half-century of shared reading, joined by special guest Walter Mosley, the famed writer of mysteries. Attendees reminisced amid old photos of past luncheons and book club members at picnics and ski resorts.
“There is so much positive vibration all centering around books and important things for communities, like literacy and education,” said Denise Wheatley Rowe of Baltimore, who was attending her third Oracle Set luncheon.
The D.C. group was founded in 1966 by Claudette Franklin Ford — then a Howard University student — who invited a group of college students to come together around books. Ford died in 1996, and her idea has endured.
Founding member Bernadette Derr said the club’s continued success is due to the strength of the friendships developed and a shared love of good books.
“Culturally and socially, we were on the same page,” Derr said. “The Washington, D.C., area is a rich, fertile ground to find book readers. We have a good foundation, we are all pretty compatible, so it all comes together.”
Derr is the only founding member who remains active in the club. She has switched jobs and, at one point, started a separate book club in the 1970s. But she said Oracle Set has left a permanent impression on her life, making her a more culturally well-rounded person.
“The book club helps me focus more on the arts, and just having the group around me is inspirational,” Derr said. “All around, it’s just a positive atmosphere.”
The club also played an important role during the civil rights movement, Derr said, offering support and recognition for black authors, who at the time had few avenues to showcase their work.
Evelyn McReynolds, the book club’s historian, fondly recalls when best-selling author Nathan Heard brought the group photocopies of his first book, which resembled a harried college essay more than a novel. He had yet to be published, said McReynolds, a member since 1967.
“I really liked the idea of helping budding authors, exposing them and helping them get on their feet. I hold this close to me,” said Derr, a New York native and retired accountant. “We made a cultural contribution.”
Dolores D. Greene, who joined the group in 1994, also feels strongly about the club’s role as a platform for black writers. She was one of only seven black students at Georgetown University when she attended from 1965-69 and started the school’s Black Students Association.
“One of the things that the book club wanted to do was to try and provide a larger audience for these writers, especially in the ’80s,” Greene said. “Most of us grew up during the civil rights movement. We were all, in our own way, activists. We come from that whole era of where inroads had to be made and someone had to take a stand, and we were very, very focused.”
The group meets once a month on Sundays from September to June, and the venue rotates among members’ homes. Any member can suggest a title she has read or is interested in reading. While the club mostly reads books by black authors, all suggestions are welcome. They read 10 books a year.
Members have to invite others to join, but the group is capped at 18.
The club has always been interested in community service, and in 1999, members started a foundation to promote youth literacy.
The foundation hosts an annual luncheon featuring prominent figures from the black community. Past speakers include D.C. native and best-selling author Marita Golden, civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and journalist Gwen Ifill.
The foundation provides scholarships and has awarded nearly $70,000 to D.C. public school students. Members said they want to introduce literature to children who might not have had such opportunity because of financial hardship or other issues.
“It goes beyond literature,” Greene said. “We are a group of women who, at many times, can relate to what happens in our personal lives. It’s truly a friendship. We trust each other enough that we can share some of our emotions. It’s respected in the room. We have seen each other succeed, had to support each other and pray for each other through challenges.”